I first heard about Facebook in my university’s computer lab. I was plugging away at a final paper for Nomadic Art of Eurasia when I happened to overhear a conversation between two girls sitting behind me. Actually, there was very little happenstance about it. You see, I’d harbored a mild crush on one of them since freshman year, but in typical wallflower fashion had never done more than cast moon-eyed looks across the classroom.
In the hope of gleaning insight into the mysterious workings of the female mind, I listened in on their tête-a-tête, sure to be a far sight more interesting than the burial rites of ancient Eurasians. My eyes concentrated intently on the glowing screen ahead as my ears concentrated intently on the fascinating conversation behind. Yes, I was eavesdropping (mea culpa, mea culpa), but I could no more resist the siren song of their conspiratorial voices than you can resist another handful of salted peanuts.
“This is Facebook,” one of the girls said in answer to her friend’s query. “I’ve dated a bunch of guys who Facebooked me.”
When a noun becomes a verb something is afoot. My curiosity was piqued. What did it mean to be “facebooked”? And how to quantify “a bunch”? She went on, “It’s great, like, you get to see the guy’s picture, his favorite music, movies, everything.” I dared a glance over my shoulder. They were absorbed in a web page featuring a picture of a beaming young gent wearing the kind of tight-fitting shirt that shows bulging biceps to best advantage. I might have then glanced down at my own less impressive arms with a sigh, but I don’t remember.
The two girls proceeded to judge the relative merits and demerits of the message-sender. After some give-and-take compromise, they calculated he had a great body and a cute face, but suffered from woefully misguided taste in music and fashion. Balancing the equation, they arrived at a final sum: the raw material was there, he was worth a date or two, and with some gentle instruction he might even be made wise in the ways of sound and sartorial splendor.
Well, this was all very horrifying to me. Not so much that two presumably intelligent, responsible young women were poking and prodding a hologram like prospective buyers at a cattle market. Rather, I was stricken to think that some cyberspace mirage had a better chance with my crush than I did. Granted, I was no Adonis, but circumstances were in my favor: I was there, in the flesh, sitting behind her, listening in on her conversation. I had the benefit of a third dimension, whereas my online rival was trapped in only two.
But instead of pressing my advantage by turning around and offering a wryly humorous comment followed by an invitation to coffee, I tapped “www.facebook.com” into the address line and hit “enter.”
How easily one may tumble down the rabbit hole. I quickly discovered that Facebook is one of the many social networking sites that have sprung up in recent years with dizzying speed, proliferating through the web and popular culture like a firewalled wildfire. At first Facebook’s niche was college students, but after soon becoming a ubiquitous presence on campuses nationwide (such as in the aforementioned computer lab) it expanded its networks into the realms of high school and the workplace. There are currently some 60 million members worldwide.
As you probably know, the most successful of the social networking sites is MySpace, which in its relatively short existence has registered a meteoric rise in popularity. Roughly 200,000 profiles are daily added to a membership already numbering over 110 million, securing its coveted title as Most Visited Site on the Web.
Like all pop-culture phenomena, MySpace set in motion a mass media blitz. Every conceivable outlet from newspapers, journals, and magazines to talk shows, blogs, and e-zines turned its attention to the site’s rapid rise and dizzying dissemination. During its reign as the Shelob of the World Wide Web, MySpace has inspired equal doses of scorn, parody, commentary, and criticism, but the salient point is this: the site has received a wide-armed embrace from the coveted 18-24 year old market.
If you’re in that age range, it’s statistically probable that you either have a profile on a social networking site or that most of your friends do. The sites certainly make the process easy; the sign-up form is right on Facebook’s front page, for example, next to a list of the site’s incentives: keep up with friends and family, reconnect with old classmates, discuss interests and hobbies, plan parties and events, etc. Sounds innocuous enough. Why not?
That is the question. For many, the question hardly merits serious attention: the site is what it is and it’s not a big deal. Most folks who sign up for a MySpace account, for example, limit their use to checking messages once in a while or to keeping an eye out for what old friends are up to. Professionals can foster business relations or pursue networking opportunities. Friends can cheer each other up with a quick message or a link to another amusing website. Catholics can feel bolstered by the number of brethren with similar interests or by joining a Catholic group. Book lovers and cinephiles can share opinions on new releases or recently discovered gems. Groups of friends can organize parties or arrange get-togethers. Writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians can market and promote their work. This is all to the good.
There’s no harm in using MySpace or its counterparts appropriately and in moderation. The problem is that MySpace is not designed to be used in moderation, and it’s not necessarily designed to be used by those who have developed the requisite maturity (whether at age fourteen or forty) to moderate their usage. Simply put, the site is designed to suck you in and keep you there. There’s a reason it’s known as “cybercrack” in some circles. Fortune magazine reported that over half of MySpace’s members spend an average of two hours on the site per visit. That’s not a visit, that’s a vice. You could make a few pleasant phone calls in that time, or write a letter, or have a healthy conversation over coffee. But why hang out with one person in the flesh when you can keep tabs on a whole host of friends via your computer screen?
MySpace consciously targets those for whom moderation is, at best, a still-developing habit, if not altogether a dirty word. It’s like drinking—fine in moderation, but spend a weekend at a college campus and you’ll quickly discover that ‘moderation’ has yet to take universal hold as a lifestyle choice. Because of this general tendency, teenagers and twenty-somethings are cash cows for bigbrand companies. MySpace targets users who are young, computersavvy, and ready to consume cleverly advertised, trendy products (anyone notice all those provocative American Apparel ads on both Facebook and MySpace?). In financial terms, ‘moderation’ is not a quality encouraged by the broader culture.
There are plenty of MySpacers able to use the site as a resource instead of letting the site use them as a resource. Those kinds of users may be fifteen or fifty, but the point is not how old they are or how many of them there are. The point is that MySpace wants its members to spend as much time surfing its pages as possible, and it is clearly accomplishing that goal. How does it do this? By flattering you, of course. The site is about you. It’s YourSpace. That was its stroke of genius. That’s why it’s so successful.
MySpace needed that hook because it’s competing for attention in a glutted market, not just online but everywhere. Modern life is chock-full of mindless distractions: the gazillion channels of cable TV, e-mail, blogs, downloadable movies, satellite radio, YouTube, video games, iPods, cell phones, text-messaging, Instant Messaging, Flickr, LiveJournal . . . on and on, ad infinitum. Virtual reality increasingly encroaches on everyday reality, and distractions erode time like waves on a shoreline.
In the garish neon landscape of modern culture, MySpace has that junk-food allure of instant gratification via immediate stimulation. If a member has, say, one hundred MySpace friends (the average, according to reports), then the odds are that there will be something new to see/read/watch virtually every time the user logs on. Meanwhile, homework piles up unfinished, a jog gets put off until tomorrow, prayer is neglected (God understands you’re busy), and the call you were supposed to return . . . well, you can do it later. After all, someone might have updated their profile, uploaded new photos, sent you a message, posted on your board, or invited you to a party.
Is there harm in any of this? Theologians are unlikely any time soon to unpack the spiritual ramifications of social networking websites, yet by all accounts (quite literally) they are here to stay. It is an astonishingly pervasive trend, especially among younger folk. For the Big Bang of computer-fluent youngsters raised in the digital age, getting a MySpace profile will eventually become as common a rite of passage as getting a driver’s license. Trends so widespread act like cultural weathervanes, indicating which way the wind is blowing. For this reason alone they are worth paying attention to.
Part of what the popularity of MySpace demonstrates is the growing divide between generations. Will kids growing up in front of computer screens be hardwired differently? If you’re someone prone to cynicism, the implications of such an eventuality are worrisome. Psychologists are already beginning to study the effects that an Internet-saturated upbringing will have on future generations. To no one’s surprise, perhaps, early results indicate a growing trend of narcissism.
MySpace, as its very name suggests, is a convenient indicator of this trend. Indeed, for a website that claims to “bring people together,” the process of making and maintaining a MySpace profile is an exercise in self-absorption. The site becomes a shrine to Self. Creating a profile allows the user to build his or her persona from the ground up. Opportunities for self-invention inevitably involve an element of fantasizing wish-fulfillment. How you see yourself is bound up with how you wish others to see you.
Identity is a Gordian-knotted tangle, impossible to reproduce on a single web page. A MySpace solves the problem by simplifying identity to cookie-cutter formulas, trivializing the person in the process. The complexity of the human condition is reduced to stock characters: the Mysterious Artist, the Free Spirit, the Party Animal, the Hipster Musician, the Bohemian Intellectual, the Political Activist, the Aspiring Model-Actress. Yes, even the Devout Christian. Of course, a profile is not meant to represent the person entire, just enough to give browsers a general impression. A friend of mine compared MySpace profiles to trading cards: “You get a picture and a little preview of someone’s personality and hobbies,” she explained, “Just enough to be able to tell in thirty seconds, ‘Hey, I should never hang out with this person.’”
Yet statistics are objective; a profile is not. It’s more like an ad campaign to promote a product. YouTube’s slogan is “Broadcast Yourself.” It’s MySpace, not OurSpace. Users become their own Public Relations spin-experts. Just broke up with someone? Switch your “status” from “in a relationship” to “single” (or the amusingly ambivalent, “it’s complicated”). Just landed a cushy new job? Let the world know—or at least your network of friends and associates— by sending out a “bulletin,” a mass update. You can even quantify your friendships by compiling a Top Eight or Top Sixteen list of your nearest and dearest, those friends who merit the distinction of appearing on the front page of your profile.
MySpace is symptomatic of the recorded generation, the generation of surveillance. Thanks to the Internet, we are now writing about ourselves, imaging ourselves, and broadcasting ourselves at an unprecedented rate and scale. Life circa 2008 is archived on camera phones, digital cameras, video cameras, surveillance cameras, web cameras, and then uploaded to the Internet for mass public consumption. People share intimate details of their lives via blogs, LiveJournal entries, Flickr photo albums, and MySpace profiles. Youngsters are quickly acclimating to a culture where private lives are available for public consumption via access to personal profiles. Even the traditional divide between Fan and Celebrity is breaking down: you can be online “friends” with Justin Timberlake or Ennio Morricone, depending on your taste.
The strange thing about sites like MySpace or Facebook is how its users knowingly conspire in the breakdown of personal privacy through comprehensive self-documentation. Visiting someone’s MySpace page can be an uncomfortably intimate encounter. Not only do many members post e-mail addresses and phone numbers, they also upload photographs of themselves their relations would blush to see, and write lengthy blog entries about the death of a beloved grandmother or childhood pet. It seems meaningful, but there is a strange disconnect between the message and the medium. What are you supposed to do with this deluge of information? Have you gained greater insight into potential acquaintances? Are you deepening already established friendships? Probably not, or at least not as effectively as if you were having a conversation over a cup of coffee. Meanwhile, advertisers gobble up all this free and valuable information like it’s manna from heaven. By scavenging through profiles, companies have access to members’ tastes in clothes, music, movies, books, and can target their products accordingly.
Perhaps a site like MySpace was always inevitable. From its infancy the Internet has been called the “Information Superhighway,” and the explosive popularity of social networking sites seems beyond a chain of causality; it’s more like a natural, organic process (like hurricanes or earthquakes). Social networking sites may have been inevitable, but that does not mean they are necessary. The question is, are they worth your time? Can they accord with a Christian ethos?
Sure, a many good souls list the Bible as one of their favorite books, or Jesus Christ among their heroes. There are groups for Catholics, and you can make online “friends” with John Paul II or Pope Benedict or Saint Francis (whose profiles are administered by admirers). Smart, enterprising priests are starting to set-up MySpace profiles to help bridge the gap between the Church and the younger members of the flock. These are valuable uses of MySpace. Ignoring the site won’t make it go away; its popularity is mushrooming, and the question becomes whether or not social networking sites can be effective tools of evangelization.
Yet evangelization means preaching the gospel. Preaching means communicating, and communicating means connecting with others in a meaningful way. Christ exhorted his followers to create a communion of cor-ad-cor relationships built on love, trust, and humility. If not used properly, social networking sites encourage us to sit alone in front of a computer screen, closed off from our fleshand- blood friends and acquaintances, absorbed in a virtual reality of our own making. It’s not the reality God created, the complex reality of humans interacting with one another, sharing the burdens and the joys of existence, attempting and failing to care for their own souls and for the souls of others.
To use social networking sites wisely and in moderation requires a healthy sense of self (which is to say, a sense of proportion, perspective, and humility that generally comes with time and experience), as well as a good measure of self-control. Yet a wide swath of MySpace is young, insecure and still developing. At that crucial stage, MySpace is not a neutral force but a potentially negative one. Instead of promoting interpersonal relationships in a spiritual communion, sites like MySpace redirect one’s attention like a mirror back to the self, not outwards to others or to God. In the current age of pervasive white noise and constant distraction, it is more necessary than ever to take time to reflect, to pray, to ponder in silence the will of the divine—in other words, to log onto God’s space, not our own.
When I was in the computer lab trying to muster the courage to talk to that girl, I found it easier to turn my back and escape into the faux-reality of Facebook. That’s the temptation. Some attempt, however feeble, to establish a connection with another person would have been more authentically Christian. God asks us to find space for Him inside our busy lives—not just the mandatory hour at Mass, but rather a space within us that is reserved solely for Him and allows His love to suffuse our being. MySpace is a noisy, crowded, two-dimensional world, with a crush of people and products clamoring for attention. It’s parallel to authentic human experience, not intrinsic to it. If God is there, you have to seek Him out. Those running the site would rather you clicked on one of their advertisers’ links.
John Murphy recently graduated from the Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon with a B.A. in Art History. He is currently the in-house designer and illustrator for Idylls Press, a small publishing house specializing in works of Catholic fiction, as well as a lecturer in Art History at Western Oregon University and Chemeketa Community College. He regularly contributes essays on film, literature, and art to Godspy.com and Catholicfiction.net.